Disney Animation and Box Office

Originally written September 3, 2014… Another note, this focuses solely on domestic grosses, meaning North America…

Here is my lengthy take on why Disney Animation's box office declined after the release of THE LION KING, based on evidence I've seen over the years mixed in with personal theories…

POCAHONTAS, no matter how good it could’ve been, was probably not going to make LION KING numbers to begin with. If box office history suggests anything, it’s that films in a certain pool reach the summit of a momentum mountain. The upward climb began with the 1988 release of OLIVER & COMPANY, back then the highest grossing animated film on initial release at the domestic box office. It made a then-record $53 million.

THE LITTLE MERMAID followed in fall 1989, it grossed $84 million, setting a new record and helping Disney’s animation inch closer and closer to the big blockbusters that normally passed $100 million in North America.

THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER was a minor bump in the financial road, for its box office performance was the fault of executive foolishness. Let’s not revisit the cringeworthy story of why the film didn’t do so well, because really, it should’ve at least made OLIVER & COMPANY numbers. It got good reviews, and it remains a fan favorite for many. Home video ended up helping it in the long run…

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, released in fall 1991, outgrossed THE LITTLE MERMAID by a pretty sizable margin. It made a huge $145 million, it was now really sitting alongside the year’s box office giants.

ALADDIN then came in fall 1992, and made a staggering $217 million. WOW.

THE LION KING arrived in summer 1994, audiences had to wait more than a year for the next event, which might’ve possibly ramped up the anticipation. THE LION KING remains one of the highest earning films of all time in North America, grossing $312 million. Even when re-released a couple years, far into the age of home media no less, it made bank.

Would Disney animated feature #33 make that much if it were just as good as LION KING? Probably not, but it still would’ve made big numbers. Perhaps somewhere around ALADDIN’s.

My theory is that there are films that make a boatload of money because everyone goes and sees them. Everyone, including people who normally wouldn’t bother going to the movies. Everyone goes, it happens to films like this, TITANIC, SPIDER-MAN, FINDING NEMO, THE DARK KNIGHT, AVATAR, THE AVENGERS, FROZEN… Big events, phenomenons…

These are movies that are more than just ones that are frontloaded on their opening weekends, they have staying power and they are truly the rage. Everyone goes, and most films that follow have no chance of replicating that. James Cameron was lucky with AVATAR due to 3D and 12 years of ticket price inflation, TITANIC sold far more tickets. SPIDER-MAN 2 didn’t gross as much as SPIDER-MAN, despite being a superior sequel and all-around great film. Every Pixar film released after FINDING NEMO hasn’t sold as much tickets, the only one to score a higher gross since then was TOY STORY 3. Again, this was due to higher ticket prices and 3D. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, even if it did break opening weekend records, probably would’ve grossed less than THE DARK KNIGHT. Its legs were weaker, too, as the film had somewhat split audiences, hard to say. BIG HERO 6 likely won't make FROZEN numbers. THE AVENGERS’ sequel may not outgross its predecessor, but who knows…

In short, POCAHONTAS - or whatever Disney was going to release after LION KING - was probably not going to make more than $250 million at the domestic box office: A massive figure that wasn’t easy to achieve back in 1995, today’s equivalent is roughly $450-500 million. POCAHONTAS, unfortunately, turned out to be a middling affair that divided both critics and audiences. POCAHONTAS, however, missed ALADDIN numbers for a good reason…

POCAHONTAS had scared off a good portion of the adult audiences that made the previous string of films so successful. Of course, there’s a misconception that Disney animation is aimed at children first and not adults. But Disney’s animation has endured for generations because it’s smart and intelligent, it’s actually made for adults but just happens to be suitable for most children. The lack of elements that usually make an adult-oriented film doesn’t mean the resulting film is childish. By that logic, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and countless other films are “childish” or are “for children”. Walt Disney and his studio made motion pictures, like everyone else in Hollywood was doing in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The Hays Code usually prevented filmmakers from putting in content that you’d see in PG-13 and R-rated films.

Disney continued to make that kind of film after the MPAA had changed the film industry with its brand new rating system in 1968. While filmmakers were now free to venture into R and (later) PG-13 territory, Disney continued to make that family-friendly picture that was deemed appropriate for younger audiences. They didn’t, however, make “children’s films”. They made universal films that simply could be watched and enjoyed by most younger audiences.

Adults began attending Disney films in larger numbers than ever before (and by that I mean the post-Walt years) after the success of THE LITTLE MERMAID, as it became socially acceptable to see these critically-acclaimed films, and these same audiences ended up liking or loving these films. POCAHONTAS... Many of the adults didn’t like it. POCAHONTAS was mostly criticized for its politically correctness, its altering of history (though that’s a hypocritical criticism at best, for when a non-Disney or live action film alters history, no one bats an eye), and several other things. Perhaps they didn’t feel that the LITTLE MERMAID formula (good-vs-evil story with a romance, a big bad villain and a smorgsabord of Broadway songs consisting of the “I Want” song, the silly song, the villain song, etc.) was appropriate for the story of Pocahontas, many felt that way.

POCAHONTAS, however, was still a box office hit. $141 million was a total most animation studios would give an arm and a leg to acquire. Behind POCAHONTAS on the all-time 1995 domestic chart in animation was Disney TV series-based film A GOOFY MOVIE, which made $35 million. POCAHONTAS’ opening weekend alone was $29 million!

However, legs must be factored in. I feel that sometimes, legs speak volumes rather than the overall gross. If a $300 million grossing film opened with $150 million, it would’ve made only two times its opening weekend. By contrast, a film opening with maybe $10 million and grossing $60 million happened to have a 6x multiplier, showing that word of mouth was strong and audiences went week by week to see the film in question. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST opened with $9 million back in 1991, but grossed $145 million, 16 times its opening weekend take! ALADDIN? 11 times! THE LION KING? 7 times. POCAHONTAS? 4 times... Had it performed like LION KING on subsequent weekends, it would’ve made roughly $200 million. If it had ALADDIN legs? It would’ve made $320 million, more than LION KING. But ALADDIN opened softly, ditto BEAST, so legs partially grew from those who avoided it in the first weeks.

POCAHONTAS didn’t have those legs, so a lot of audiences simply stayed at home. As expected though, it was a home video smash. Home video can probably save pretty much any film, as people will discover it some way or another. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME arrived in 1996, and it was greeted in a similar manner. Critics had problems with it although it generally got better reception than POCAHONTAS, it just wasn’t anywhere near MERMAID/BEAST/ALADDIN/LION KING praise. This time, in addition to adults backing off, some families stayed at home as well because HUNCHBACK was significantly darker and more violent than the current Disney offerings. HUNCHBACK opened with $21 million, grossed $100 million in the end, 4 times its opening weekend. No different from POCAHONTAS’ performance, it just happened to bring in less money due to a smaller opening.

Then along came HERCULES in 1997. It seemed like it would be a rebound, for the film was following in ALADDIN’s footsteps and was going a more irreverent, cartoony route. It even got pretty good reviews for the most part. However, it still had many of the formulaic elements seen in POCAHONTAS and HUNCHBACK, and I suspect that audiences were simply wary of the “90s Disney formula” by the time HERCULES hit the screen. It opened with $21 million and made $99 million, it performed just like HUNCHBACK did. Still $99 million wasn’t an easy gross to achieve, but a good amount of animated films released by other studios at the time were poorly made and mostly grossed below $25 million domestically. Disney’s disappointment seemed rather unfair, for they were still making big-grossing films.

Maybe perhaps the success of TOY STORY got to them, for the film had opened with $29 million (same as POCAHONTAS) but grossed a big $191 million, close to ALADDIN numbers with a higher multiplier to boot. It beat the Disney film, a Disney animated film was not America’s highest grossing animated film of the year. First time since 1986, when Don Bluth's AN AMERICAN TAIL beat THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. (To get technical, hybrid WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT beat OLIVER & COMPANY in 1988, a film made by Amblin and Richard Williams, and released by Touchstone.) It did so because it was not only a great film and lightyears better than POCAHONTAS, but it was also the first computer animated film. It was fresh, brand new, and exciting. Audiences simply had to check it out. TOY STORY’s gross was what POCAHONTAS should’ve gotten, had it been a film that appealed to everyone across the board.

The summer of 1998 brought MULAN, which was advertised as a more action-packed adventure than a Broadway-style/LION KING-esque Disney musical. That piqued some interest, but its $22 million opening was on par with HUNCHBACK and HERCULES. However, it had better legs and it got the best reception for a Disney film since THE LION KING, but the reception wasn’t great praise. It was more of an “it’s good” reaction. The film grossed $120 million, a bit of perk up. 5 times its opening weekend, audiences liked it a little better than the previous three films, it seems. It was still formulaic though, if it wasn’t, it would’ve probably gotten closer to TOY STORY.

However, the autumn of 1998 was a shock to Disney when a quad of animated features grossed more than $90 million at the domestic box office. SPACE JAM may have achieved that in 1996, but that was a one-time thing, for Warner Animation's second film QUEST FOR CAMELOT didn't even make half of that. Here we had four films making more than $90 million! DreamWorks’ ANTZ was the first out of the gate, and a new computer animated film, the second major American one since TOY STORY. It opened with $17 million, which was pretty good for a non-Disney animated film in the mid-to-late 1990s. Legs were strong, it made $90 million. Its PG rating and edgy content got adults, who were probably tired of Disney’s current formula, in the seats. Part of it could’ve been the novelty of computer animation as well.

However, next out of the gate was Pixar’s own bug film (the controversy of these two similar titles probably helped ANTZ at the box office as well, for people were curious about both films), A BUG’S LIFE. A BUG’S LIFE got the same great critical reception ANTZ got, which was not too far from TOY STORY or the first few Disney Renaissance films. It opened with a much bigger $33 million, making it one of the biggest openings for an animated film. With that, it grossed $162 million domestically. I suspect Disney didn’t mind too much, considering that A BUG’S LIFE was distributed by them. ANTZ probably made them more concerned, along with DreamWorks’ other 1998 release, THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, which took in $101 million off of a $14 million opening. 7 times its opening weekend, LION KING legs. It probably held on, despite reviews saying it was simply “good”, because it wasn’t like the Disney formula. Last but not least was THE RUGRATS MOVIE, which grossed $100 million off of a really big $27 million opening. However, that was three times its opening weekend, a low multiplier for an animated film back then, which indicates that this one was mostly big because of the show’s success. The show wasn’t huge in its original run from 1991 to 1995 (believe it or not), it became a big success when the reruns came around, which convinced Nickelodeon to revive the show. Then the show had hit the peak of its popularity by 1997-1998, so the film was obviously going to be huge. Makes one wonder how a SIMPSONS film would’ve done had it come out around 1995. RUGRATS’ sequel opened just as well in 2000, but $22 million wasn’t as big as it was in 1998, and it had weaker legs. The final sequel, which was a WILD THORNBERRYS crossover, did very badly in 2003. Again, the popularity of the show in its prime.

In fact, in 1996, BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA was then the second highest grossing non-Disney animated film in North America. Why? Because BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD was a very popular show, so obviously the movie was going to make bank, and it made a nice $63 million off of a $20 million opening. Not bad for a mostly adults-only animated film. In front was SPACE JAM, a hybrid film that probably did well not only because of the Looney Tunes being in it, but because it was hip and cool for its time. Its opening weekend was a big $27 million, so it just made three times its opening weekend. Behind those films was Fox’s ANASTASIA, which debuted a year later, directed by Don Bluth, showing that some competition was beginning to take off.

Disney was no longer ruling the roost in 1998, and competition was really rising. DreamWorks especially, for their leader Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in 1994 and had a bone to pick with Disney CEO Michael Eisner. The ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE release date war was definitely a result of that feud, along with the Disney jabs in films like SHREK and films like PRINCE OF EGYPT trying so hard to be unlike Disney. Disney’s own Pixar had them beat as well.

TARZAN was the next big gun from Disney, which hit in summer 1999. TARZAN had a lot of the same formulaic elements that dominated the post-BEAUTY AND THE BEAST films, but some differences too. It had only one onscreen musical number, there wasn’t much of an “I Want” plot, and also the film was a big fx spectacle. In the 90s, audiences ate up fx spectacles. TARZAN made extensive use of computer animation for a traditionally animated film, and its exciting action probably worked in its favor. Again, CGI was all the rage from then until the mid-2000s. TARZAN soared above the last couple of Disney animated films along with A BUG'S LIFE, opening with a huge $34 million and then grossing five times that, with a great $171 million. Talk about a pick-me-up! Its critical reception was the strongest of the post-LION KING features.

So we saw a decline at the box office from POCAHONTAS to HERCULES, but we got an upswing that started with MULAN but sadly ended with TARZAN. TARZAN’s impressive gross, unfortunately, was dwarfed later in 1999 by TOY STORY 2. That became the new second highest grossing animated film of all time, with a robust $245 million gross off of a record-breaking $57 million opening, a fine 4x multiplier. It being an excellent sequel to an already excellent film, the novelty of CG that was still strong at the time, and everything else worked in that film’s favor.

Disney’s plan was to move away from the dominating LITTLE MERMAID formula by 1999. The next line-up of features wouldn’t be musicals or even big love stories. Troubled project KINGDOM OF THE SUN, which was a Renaissance-style film with all the familiar elements (love story, big bad villain, songs by Sting!), was reworked into the buddy comedy that was THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE. DINOSAUR promised CG, spectacle, action and thrills with its prehistoric cast. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE would be an epic creature feature/rock-em sock-em action film with no songs at all that was for adults. LILO & STITCH would be a quirky, bold new tale about a little girl and an alien, no love story or singing… Elvis instead! TREASURE PLANET would build off of ATLANTIS’ action/sci-fi promises…

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t quite work out. By the late 1990s, Michael Eisner had put many executives in charge of Walt Disney Feature Animation. Many of them were biased against animation and saw it as a marketing machine, rather than a great medium for telling stories that live action couldn’t. As a result, the environment there became worse and worse, and the films took a hit…

DINOSAUR was the first casualty in summer 2000. Despite the visuals and great $38 million opening weekend, word of mouth soured. It was boring, it had terrible writing and was more for children than it was for adults. The pandering killed the film, shooed away the teen and adult audience, for it made $137 million in the long run, 3 times its opening. Not very good. It being so expensive caused it to flop, for the worldwide gross couldn’t save it either. The entire studio that was set up to make the film - called The Secret Lab - was closed, its next project was thrown right out the window.

FANTASIA 2000 in its general release didn’t do well. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE’s previews didn’t appeal to audiences, thus it opened with a terrible $9 million. However, very strong reviews (it was a great, irreverent send-up of the Disney formula and was a strong buddy picture in general) and excellent word-of-mouth partially saved the day, as the film climbed to $89 million. 9 times its opening weekend! It did even better on video, but the film was a costly endeavor due to all the production problems and an earlier iteration of it being scrapped. Worldwide, it couldn’t be saved either. $89 million wasn't a bad gross by any means in 2000/2001, but THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE was a very costly film due to all the trouble it went through to get made, so it didn't make its money back. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE opened better in summer 2001 with an okay $20 million, but its poor writing scared off adults, and its PG rating and violence scared off families. It was one of those unfortunate films that was too violent for kiddies but not "cool enough" for people over the age of 10. It grossed $84 million, showing that legs really speak volumes. EMPEROR opened lower but finished higher, ATLANTIS had trouble.

Meanwhile, 2000 wasn’t that great of a year for animation. DreamWorks’ THE ROAD TO EL DORADO was poorly received and didn’t repeat THE PRINCE OF EGYPT’s success. Aardman’s brilliant stop-motion film CHICKEN RUN, which DreamWorks distributed in North America, made bank and was the highest grossing non-Disney animated film at the time. Fox Animation’s TITAN A.E. was a bomb because it didn’t appeal to adults and it was too much for family audiences, much like ATLANTIS. It chased the teen audience, that was the kiss of death. RUGRATS IN PARIS did decent business but nothing spectacular, everything else came and went.

2001, however, was a whole different story. DreamWorks’ next CG film was a smash hit, SHREK. Opening with a big $42 million, it made six times its opening and grossed $267 million. It was now North America’s second highest grossing animated film behind THE LION KING, though TOY STORY 2 was still ahead of it worldwide by a smidgen. Its mix of Disney-bashing, pokes at fairy tales, crude humor, and PG-level content were what helped it, but it really succeeded because it was a very good film unlike many of the other non-Disney animated films at the time. It was fresh, it was computer animated, it was critically acclaimed, it was a big hit for a reason. Pixar’s MONSTERS, INC. opened with a record-breaking $62 million, making SHREK’s opening gross seem small. Grossing four times its opening, it made a big $255 million stateside. Worldwide, it was second to LION KING with over $527 million. Why did it do well? Critical acclaim, it was fresh, it was computer animated, it was really good. Pixar's box office streak was beginning to mirror Disney's in the late 80s and early 90s…

In 2002, Pixar didn’t have a new film and DreamWorks had SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON, a traditionally animated film that had a hard time catching on. Its $17 million opening, which would’ve been big in 1998, was weak. It did, however, manage to make 4 times that amount, suggesting that it had slow-burning word of mouth. Still, it and its paltry overseas gross wasn’t enough to cover its budget. Disney then unleashed LILO & STICH, which was largely free of the executive meddling that hurt DINOSAUR and ATLANTIS. As a result, it opened pretty big with $35 million. Legs were strong, as it made 4 times that amount, finishing up with $145 million. It was in POCAHONTAS/TARZAN territory, with critical acclaim to boot. 2002’s success story was newcomer Blue Sky’s ICE AGE, which opened with a large $46 million and made four times that amount, grossing $176 million. Again, the CG boom was still in full swing, plus it was very good with a fine story and great humor.

However, Disney faced a harsh blow in late 2002 with TREASURE PLANET. With a price tag larger than TARZAN’s record-breaking costs, TREASURE PLANET was at the time the most expensive animated film ever made (even more than the computer animated films out at the time!), and its visuals showed. However, from the marketing, it looked undesirable. Adults avoided it because it looked like a movie for teenage boys only, teenage boys avoided it because they avoid G/PG/Disney animation in general (“it’s kiddie!”), and families weren’t enough to help it - the PG rating and mild action violence may not have helped, either. It opened with a bad $12 million, competition from the likes of the latest HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS installments also didn’t help. Taking in a paltry $38 million domestically, 3 times its opening, it was a bomb. Overseas numbers couldn’t save it, the film fared much better on home media. It was better received than something like ATLANTIS, but the reception was nowhere near LILO & STITCH’s. Or even HUNCHBACK’s. It was middling for many…

2003 brought on Pixar’s FINDING NEMO, which broke the opening weekend record and outgrossed THE LION KING domestically and internationally. The new champion was Pixar’s critically acclaimed, excellent, visually amazing film. The CGI boom, again, was in full swing. Executives bent over backwards and said audiences didn't care for traditional animation anymore. BROTHER BEAR was Disney Animation’s 2003 offering. Looking derivative, opening on a Saturday rather than a Friday (with a piss-poor excuse to boot), and ending up a middling film that pandered to kids whilst shutting out adults, it opened low but it did manage to pull a 4x mutliplier. Still, the $85 million domestic total didn’t please Disney suits, nor did a relatively healthy worldwide gross. The Florida animation unit was shut down months after the film’s release. Everything else, from DreamWorks’ bad SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEAS to Nickelodeon's RUGRATS GO WILD, bombed. Disney even released direct-to-video sequel THE JUNGLE BOOK 2 to theaters, which opened badly but did make 4 times its opening and (sadly) outgrossed TREASURE PLANET.

The nail was in the coffin with the next Disney film, HOME ON THE RANGE. Being one of the few Disney animated films aimed only at small children exclusively (all due to executive meddling), it opened terribly with $13 million. The $50 million gross wasn’t even 4 times its opening weekend! However, by 2004, multipliers would be different for all kinds of films. Nowadays, a 3x multiplier is very good for an animated feature... Still, HOME ON THE RANGE was another critical and commercial dud. Pixar and DreamWorks took home all the cash the year. The Emeryville studios’ THE INCREDIBLES made a robust $261 million, SHREK 2 became the highest grossing animated film domestically and worldwide while also breaking the opening weekend record for an animated film and ranking up there with the all-time record breakers, period. The Katzenberg-run studio’s second 2004 release SHARK TALE was also a big hit. It was a bad, poorly-received film that relied on pop culture references and hipness, but it was CG and hip, so it was big. THE POLAR EXPRESS, from Warner Bros., collected $162 million stateside.

Then there was 2005’s CHICKEN LITTLE, Disney Animation’s first all-computer animated film, it felt like the brainchild of the executives. Despite being a bad film that chased the DreamWorks brand of snark, audiences made it a hit. Opened with $40 million, grossed $135 million, 3 times its opening. Not bad by 2005-nowadays standards. It was their biggest since LILO & STITCH. If released today, it probably wouldn't have done so well…

Disney then took 2006 off, as the CG boom started to die down. Audiences felt a “bad CG movie fatigue”, and now it was no longer such a novelty. Bad blockbuster totals went down, big spectacle wasn’t an excuse anymore. A lot of computer animated films came and went in 2006, the only survivors being Pixar’s CARS, DreamWorks’ OVER THE HEDGE, and WB/Animal Logic’s unexpected sleeper hit HAPPY FEET. Sony Animation’s debut film OPEN SEASON did modest business, since the film wasn’t high budgeted. Blue Sky’s ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN did well despite being a step down in quality from the original.

Disney Animation was cleared of nosy executives after Michael Eisner’s departure in 2005. John Lasseter reshaped the studio, Roy E. Disney returned (and remained at the studio until his death in 2009), the focus was now on quality. MEET THE ROBINSONS was delayed from a fall 2006 release to spring 2007, in order for retooling to be done. The finished film got okay reviews at best, marketing failed to sell it, it opened with a disappointing $25 million but had strong legs to get it to $97 million. Worldwide it did worse, but it was a necessary step back towards regaining audiences.

BOLT and THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, while critically acclaimed, were compromised by bad marketing campaigns and poor timing. Both films did just okay, but showed that they had strong word of mouth.

TANGLED got the same great reception BOLT and FROG got, but was backed by a marketing campaign that ensured a good opening weekend. The legs were there from the start, it made $200 million, it was Disney’s highest earning film since THE LION KING. WINNIE THE POOH was tossed away, it did very badly on opening weekend but its multiplier was pretty strong. Still, the good, warmly-received film settled for a paltry $26 million stateside with barely anymore worldwide. WRECK-IT RALPH was almost as big as TANGLED domestically and internationally, keeping the streak going. FROZEN is now Disney’s highest earning animated film, and the highest grossing animated film of all time… One of the top 10 biggest films, box office-wise. It has grossed $1.2 billion worldwide, its domestic total was also robust, $400 million.

BIG HERO 6 is likely to be very successful given the now-trusted-again Disney Animation brand, strong marketing and its quality (early screenings indicate it's really good, not a surprise). However, it's realistically not going to make FROZEN numbers. FROZEN was the summit of the momentum mountain, and it'll take a while for a Disney animated film to reach those numbers again. Or heck, any animated film or film! It's the nature of the beast, LION KING and FINDING NEMO are fine enough animated examples.

Let's hope the suits know this, along with the shareholders and everyone else. $400 million domestically alone is still something of an out of reach number, too. FROZEN, TOY STORY 3 and SHREK 2 are the only animated films to make that much on their initial outings. BIG HERO 6 simply needs to be a hit, that is all. Same goes for ZOOTOPIA, GIANTS, MOANA and other upcoming Disney Animation films. As long they are marketed right, are good, and tick with audiences around the world, the 91-year-old animation giant will be fine. We'll still be going through a current Disney Renaissance…